Posts filed under 'Drawn and Quartered'

1758: Not Florence Hensey, Seven Years’ War spy

1 comment July 12th, 2018 Headsman

The French spy Florence Hensey was due to die at Tyburn on this date in 1758. As it happened, the only violence done there was to the spectators.

A well-traveled Irish Catholic, Hensey had a prosperous London medical practice when he made an offer to a former colleague in France to share intelligence on war preparations at the outset of the England-vs.-France Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Upon being accepted into the ranks of salaried moles, Hensey set his industry to forming acquaintances at establishments where parliamentarians and their clerks met and gossiped, transmitting the resulting nuggets to France by way of Germany in lemon juice ink concealed within letters bearing nothing but everyday pleasantries. Eventually clerks suspicious at the volume of such superficially trivial exchanges being imposed upon the international post got nosy and found out the real story.

Hensey’s treachery was obvious, ongoing, and in the midst of wartime. He should have died for it, but on that very morning he was spared that miserable fate. The Newgate calendar professes “much surprise at the extension of royal mercy” considering numerous other precedents to the contrary.

De la Motte, the particulars of whose case we shall hereafter give, was “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” for the same kind of offence which Hensey committed; and in still more recent times, numbers have suffered death for similar treason; and yet we have to observe, without finding any especial reason for it, that Doctor Hensey was pardoned. If granted from political motives, it must have been in fear of Spain; an unworthy impulse of the ministers of a far greater and more powerful nation.

Indeed, the Spanish connection appears to be the best explanation for Hensey’s unexpected reprieve: he had a brother in the retinue of a Spanish ambassador who was able to exercise his empire’s diplomatic channels in the doctor’s service. (Spain was on the sidelines at this moment, and Britain keen to keep her there; the Spanish finally joined the war on France’s side very late in the game, in 1762.)

This gambit, however, came as quite a nasty surprise to the ample and bloodthirsty crowd that had turned up at Tyburn.

The awful procession to Tyburn, intended to impress the multitude with sentiments of reverence for the laws of their country, produced a very contrary effect; and the eager and detestable curiosity of the populace, to witness executions, became a source of considerable emolument to certain miscreants, who were in the habit of erecting scaffolds for spectators; many of these scaffolds were substantial wooden buildings, and erected at every point from whence a glimpse of the execution could be obtained; the prices for seats varied according to the turpitude or quality of the criminal: — Dr. Hensey was to have been executed for High Treason in 1758, the prices of seats for that exhibition amounted to 2s. and 2s. 6d.; but, in the midst of general expectation, the Doctor was most provokingly reprieved.

As the mob descended from their stations with unwilling steps, it occurred to them, that, as they had been deprived of the intended entertainment, the proprietors of the seats ought to return the admission-money; which they demanded in terms vociferous, and with blows offensive, and in short, exercised their happy talent for rioting with unbounded success. On this occasion a vast number of these erections were destroyed.

Hensey spent a couple more years in Newgate, then was released into obscurity; presumably he left the realm to his brother’s custody.

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1681: Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr in Great Britain

Add comment July 1st, 2018 Headsman

Archbishop Oliver Plunkett earned the last Catholic martyr’s crown in Britain on this date in 1681.*

Product of County Meath blood and Italian seminary, Plunkett had been back floating around Ireland as its chief prelate since 1670. In this decade, the English-imposed laws burdening Catholics had been relaxed; Plunkett was able to minister his flock, openly at first and after 1673 as a fugitive whom Irish authorities did not much wish to pursue.

Plunkett’s safety speedily expired with the emergence in England of the Popish Plot, a security panic catalyzed like its modern-day analogues by equal parts bad faith and malice.

The concoctions of an opportunistic fabulist caused the English populace to become convinced in 1678 that a vast and treasonable Catholic conspiracy menaced the land; in its day, it was a delusion held so widely and deeply as to cow into silence and compliance all skeptics, even King Charles himself. Charles’s Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, the Earl of Essex, cynically leaned into the hysteria by whipping fears of a Plunkett-hatched invasion of Ireland by the French, although he well knew that Plunkett was “of a … peaceable temper & … comforable to ye Government.”

Plunkett spent months in hiding, refusing to flee Ireland, until he was finally arrested in December 1679. After proceedings in Ireland collapsed, the prelate was moved to London for a more manageable show trial, the entire transcript of which can be perused here.

In it, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis Pemberton chastises Plunkett for soliciting time to collect his witnesses, and concludes with a denunciation of the enemy religion that would not look far out fo place in many a present-day comments section.

truly yours is Treason of the highest Nature, ’tis a Treason in truth against God and your King, and the Country where you lived. You have done as much as you could to dishonour God in this Case; for the Bottom of your Treason was, your setting up your false Religion, than which there is not any Thing more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to Mankind in the World. A Religion that is ten Times worse than all the Heathenish Superstitions; the most dishonourable and derogatory to God and his Glory, of all Religions or pretended Religions whatsoever, for it undertakes to dispense with God’s Laws, and to pardon the Breach of them. So that certainly a greater Crime there cannot be committed against God, than for a Man to endeavour the Propagation of that Religion; but you to effect this, have designed the Death of our lawful Prince and King: And then your design of Blood in the Kingdom where you lived, to set all together by the Ears, to destroy poor innocent People, to prostitute their Lives and Liberties, and all that is dear to them, to the Tyranny of Rome and France.

Now tormented that his opportunistic fear-mongering was actually going to lay the archbishop in his grave, Essex implored the Catholic-sympathetic King Charles to spare Plunkett. “Then, my lord, be his blood on your own conscience,” snapped Charles, politically constrained from a beneficence he would have dearly loved to grant. “You could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not.”

On the first of July, he was drawn to Tyburn (a stained glass depiction of it can be found in this post), where he was hanged and quartered. (The strange Anglo-Irish plotter Edward Fitzharris preceded Plunkett on the scaffold, as an undercard attraction.) “He won more credit and repute, as well for himself as for his country, by one hour of suffering, than he could have acquired perhaps by hundreds of years of life,” one observer wrote.

This might very well be so. Aside from being the last Catholic martyr in the Isles, Plunkett is among the most warmly remembered, as evidenced by his recent remit as the patron saint of peace and reconciliation in post-Troubles Ireland — not to mention the loving preservation of his relics at St. Peter’s cathedral in Drogheda.

Readers might enjoy this 68-minute lecture on Plunkett’s life and times.


St. Oliver Plunkett’s head preserved in a shrine at Drogheda, Ireland. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

* July 1 by the Julian calendar still then employed in England; by the Gregorian calendar adopted in most Catholic countries at this point, the date was July 11 — and some Catholic primary sources use the latter date.

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1766: Nicholas Sheehy, Whiteboys priest

Add comment March 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1766, Irish priest Nicholas Sheehy was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Clonmel — a victim to the years-long campaign of enclosures by Ireland’s landlords, whom English agriculturist Arthur Young reported as “harpies who squeezed out the very vitals of the people and by process, extortion, and sequestration dragged from them the little which the landlord had left them.”

Sheehy was a sympathizer of the peasant “Whiteboys” resistance movement, so named for the snowy frocks these secret guerrillas donned when out on midnight raids to strike back against the owners where tenants’ livelihoods were at stake. Where landlords enclosed public grounds, Whiteboys knocked down the fences; where they displaced peasant farmer with commercial livestock, Whiteboys hamstrung the cattle.

“It could not be expected,” wrote Margaret Anne Cusack, “that the Irish priest would see the people exposed to all this misery — and what to them was far more painful, to all this temptation to commit deadly sin — without making some effort in their behalf.”

Father Sheehy, parish priest of Clogheen, was one of these, and a villain in the eyes of Protestant elites for his denunciations of enclosure and his comforts to its more muscular foes.

He had interfered in the vain hope of protecting his unfortunate parishioners from injustice; and, in return, he was himself made the victim of injustice. He was accused of encouraging a French invasion — a fear which was always present to the minds of the rulers, as they could not but know that the Irish had every reason to seek for foreign aid to free them from domestic wrongs. He was accused of encouraging the Whiteboys, because, while he denounced their crimes, he accused those who had driven them to these crimes as the real culprits. He was accused of treason, and a reward of £300 was offered for his apprehension. Conscious of his innocence, he gave himself up at once to justice, though he might easily have fled the country. He was tried in Dublin and acquitted. But his persecutors were not satisfied.

A charge of murder was got up against him; and although the body of the man [John Bridge, a former Whiteboy turned informer -ed.] could never be found, although it was sworn that he had left the country, although an alibi was proved for the priest, he was condemned and executed. A gentleman of property and position came forward at the trial to prove that Father Sheehy had slept in his house the very night on which he was accused of having committed the murder; but the moment he appeared in court, a clergyman who sat on the bench had him taken into custody, on pretence of having killed a corporal and a sergeant in a riot. The pretence answered the purpose …

At the place of execution, Father Sheehy most solemnly declared, on the word of a dying man, that he was not guilty either of murder or of treason; that he never had any intercourse, either directly or indirectly, with the French; and that he had never known of any such intercourse being practised by others.

Father Sheehy’s head wound up on a pike (it was said that the birds in reverence would not peck at it), and his name in the rich firmament of Irish martyr-patriots. He’s been occasionally proposed for canonization.

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1584: Five Catholic priests

Add comment February 12th, 2018 Headsman

John Hungerford Pollen collected and translated this document in Unpublished Documents Relating to the English Martyrs. It comprises the testimony of a friendly Catholic witness to the martyrdom of five priests at Tyburn on this date in 1584, as conveyed to another priest, the future martyr Robert Southwell. The historical moment for these martyrdoms was the weeks following the exposure of the Catholic Throckmorton Plot; most of the priests had been in prison many months, but appear to have their martyrdoms catalyzed by a seemingly perilous security situation.

The Martyrdome of Mr Haddock, Emerford, Fenn, Mutter, priests.

The 6 day of February Mr Heywood and five other priests were brought to the Kings-bench barre, indited of high treason for conspiring at Rhemes and Rome, as it was surmised against F. Campian. They all pleaded not guilty and so were conveyed to the Tower. F. Haywood was in Jesuit’s weed, so grave a man as ever I sett my eyes upon, he wore a coate of black very low and upon the same a cloke of black, downe almost to the grownde. He had in his hand a black staff and upon his head a velvet coyfe and there upon a broade seemly black felt.

The 9 [sic] of February the five priests were brought againe to the barre, and arrained upon the former endightment: they pleaded and protested innocency. Their old friend [Charles] Sledd [an informer noted, like George Eliot, for turning in Catholic priests -ed.] gave in evidence against them: The Jury found them out of hand Guilty, and the Judge gave sentence of death. Whereupon the priests soung Te Deum and such like godly verses.

Upon Wednesday being the last day of the Terme, these five priests were drawen from the Tower to Tyborne upon hurdles; the first that was brought into the cart under the gibbet was Mr Haddock, a man in complexion fayre, of countenance milde, and in professing of his faith passing stoute. One of the Sherifs called Spencer much incensed against them, together with certaine ministers bad Mr Haddock confesse the fact and ask the Queen forgivenesse. Whereupon Mr Haddock calling God to witnesse, protested upon his soule that he was not guilty of the treason, and therfore would not aske the Queen forgivenesse: and further sayd, ‘I take her for my lawfull Queen, I have seyd this morning these many paternosters for her, and I pray God she may raigne long Queene. If I had her in the wildernesse I would not for all the world putt a pinn towards her with intent to hurt her.’

Then seyd the Sherif Spenser, ‘There is since thy arrainment worse matter found against thee [by Munday the spye]': Whereunto answered Mr Haddock, ‘You have found nothing since; and soe belyke I was wrongfully arrained.’

Then Antony Munday was brought in, who uttered these speeches, ‘Upon a time you and I, with another whose name I have forgotten, walking together at Rome, the other wished the harts [Munday actually said ‘heads’ -ed.] of 3 of the nobility being of her counsell. Whereupon you sayd, M. Haddock, To make up a masse, I would we had the hart [head] of the Queen.’

Then sayd Spenser and other of his officers, ‘Away with the villaine traytor.’

But Mr Haddock, moved with these foresaid talke and speeches sayd as followeth. ‘I am presently to give an account [of all that I have done during life before the tribunal of God]; and as before God I shal answer, I never spake nor intended any such thing. And Munday, if thou didst heare me speak any such thing, how chanced it thou camest not to the barre to give this in against me upon thy othe.’ ‘Why,’ sayd Munday, ‘I never heard of your arraingement.’

Then said Spencer, ‘Didst not thou call the Queen heretick?’ ‘I confesse,’ sayd Haddock, ‘I did.’ Whereupon Spencer together with the ministers and other of his officers used the aforesaid speeches of treason, traytor, and villaine.

Mr Haddock sayd secretly a hymne in latin and that within my hearing, for I stood under the gibbet. A minister being on the cart with him, requested him to pray in English that the people might pray with him. Where upon Mr Haddock put the minister away with his hand, saying, ‘Away, away, I wil have nothing to doe with thee.’ But he requested all Catholics to pray with him and for his country. Where upon sayd one of the standers-by, ‘Here be noe Catholicks': ‘Yes,’ sayd another, ‘we be all Catholics.’ Then sayd Mr Haddock, ‘I meane Catholicks of the Catholick Roman Church, and I pray God that my bloud may encrease the Catholick faith in England': whereunto sayd Spenser: ‘The Catholic faith, the devel’s faith. Away with the traytor Drive away the cartel’ And so Mr Haddock ended his life, as constantly as could be required.

When the cart was dryven away, this Spenser presently commanded the rope to be cut, but notwithstanding the officer strock at the rope sundry times before he fell downe; and the reporte of them that stood by the block was that at what time the tormenter was in pulling out of his bowells, Mr Haddock was in life. By his own confession he was 28 yeares of age.

After Mr Haddock was taken to the block Mr Hemerford was brought unto the cart; he was very milde, and sometime a scholler of St John’s College in Oxford. Spenser bad him confesse and aske forgivenesse as before: but he protested innocency as Mr Haddock had done; yet sayd, ‘Where in I have offended her, I ask her forgivenesse, but in this fact of treason alleaged against me, I never offended.’

Then sayd a minister, master of art of St John’s College of Oxford, ‘You and I ware of old acquaintance in Oxford, by which I request you to pray openly and in English, that the people may pray with you.’ Then said M Hemerford, ‘I understand latin well enough, and am not to be taught of you. I request only Catholicks to pray with me.’ Where upon answered the minister, ‘I acknowledge that in Oxford you were alwaies by farre my better. Yet many times it pleaseth God, that the learned should be taught by the simple.’ One Risse termed a Doctor of Divinity, asked Mr Hemerford whither he would hold with the Pope or the Queen, in case the Pope should send an army into England. Whereunto Mr Hemerford answered, That in case they were sent in respect of the Pope’s own person, then he would holde with the Queen; but if it were sent to suppresse heresy or to restore the land to the catholick faith, then he would holde with the Pope. His speech was short being not permitted to speak much, and in substance the rest of his speech, not here sett down verbatim, was to the same effect that Mr [Haddock’s] was. He was cutt downe half dead: when the tormentor did cutt off his membres, he did cry ‘Oh! A!’ I heard my self standing under the gibbet.

Mr Fenn was the third that suffred, being bidd to doe as before, answered as his fellows did & sayd. ‘I am condemned for that I with Ms Haddock at Rome did conspire, & at which time Mr Haddock was a student at Rome and I a prisoner in the Marshalsea, or at the lest I am sure that I was in England, but to my remembrance, I was a prisoner in the Marshalsea. Therefore good people judge you whether I am guilty of this fact or noe.’

A minister called Hene avouched a place of St Paul whereunto Mr Fenn said: ‘I am not to be taught my duty by you.’

The rest of his speeches were to the same effect his fellows were. Before the cart was driven away, he was stripped of all his apparell saving his shirt only and presently after the cart was driven away his shirt was pulled of his back, so that he hung stark naked, where at the people muttered greatly, and the other sherif, called Massam, sayd to the officers, ‘You play the knaves. They be men. Let them be used like men,’ and alwaies commanded that they should hang until they were dead. Notwithstanding the other sherif commanded that they should be cut downe presently, and soe was Mo Fenn, but his companions following him were permitted to hang longer.

Mr Nutter was the 4th man, sometime schollar of St John’s College in Cambridge, and Mr Munden was the fifth & last: they denyed the fact, acknowledged the Queen Majesty to be their Queene and prayed for her, as the former had done, and soe in most milde and constant manner ended their life. Many a one in my hearing sayd, ‘God be with their sweet soules.’

What I have putt downe I hard myself, and therefore I may boldly speake it. If you please, you may shew it to your friends, provyded alwaies you tell not my name.


Plaque honoring George Haddock/Haydock at St. Andrew’s & Blessed George Haydock’s Catholic Church, Cottam, Lancashire. (cc) image by Skodoway.

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1591: Edmund Geninges

Add comment December 10th, 2017 Headsman

Catholic priest Edmund Geninges (also Gennings, or Jennings) was executed on this date in 1592, along with the layman Swithburne Welles, whose home played host to Geninges’s final Mass. At least, that’s according to The life and death of Mr. Edmund Geninges priest, crowned with martyrdome at London, the 10. day of November, in the yeare M.D.XCI., by .

Despite the title, the text within that volume correctly places events on “fryday the 10 day of December” — per the Julian calendar still in use in England at that time. The book was even by the priest’s brother, John Gennings: m must have just been a typeset-o on the frontispiece.

As merchants of the grim we excerpt the portion of that tract focusing on Geninges’ death. A fuller summary of the hagiography can be enjoyed on Early Modern Whale.

When the happy houre of his passion was come being 8 of the clocke on fryday the 10 day of December, M. Plasden, M. White, and the rest were carryed to Tyborne, & there executed. Mistresse Welles to her great grief was reprived, and died in prison. M. Edmund Geninges, and M. Swythune Welles, as is aforesayd, were condemned to be executed in Grayes Inne fieldes on the North side of Holborne, over agaynst his owne dore: When they were brought thither, after a few speaches of a Minister or two that were there present, M. Geninges was taken of the sledd, whereon he lay. In the meane time he cryed out with holy S. Andrew: O bona Crux diu desiderata, & iam concupiscenti animo preparata, securus & gaudens venio ad te; ita & tu exultans suspicias me discipulum eius qui pependit in te! O good gibbet long desired, and now prepared for my hart much desiring thee, being secure and ioyfull I come unto thee, so thou also with ioy, I beseech thee receyue me the disciple of him that suffered on the Crosse.

Being put upon the ladder naked to his shirte, many questions were asked him by some standers by, wherto he answered still directly. At length M. Topliffe being present cryed out with a loud voyce, Geninges, Geninges, confesse thy fault, thy Popish treason, and the Queene by submission (no doubt) will grant thee pardon. To which he mildly answered, I knowe not M. Topliffe in what I have offended my deare annoynted Princesse, for if I had offended her, or any other in any thing, I would willingly aske her, and all the world forgivenesse. If she bee offended with me without a cause, for professing my fayth and religion, because I am a Priest, or because I will not turne Minister agaynst my conscience, I shalbe I trust excused and innocent before God: Obedire (sayth S. Peter) oportet Deo magis quam hominibus, I must obey God rather than men, and must not in this case acknowledge a fault where none is. If to returne into England Priest, or to say Masse be Popish treason, I heere confesse I am a traytour; but I thinke not so. And therefore I acknowledge my selfe guilty of these thinges, not with repentance or sorrow of hart, but with an open protestation of inward ioy, that I have done so good deedes, which if they were to do agayne, I would by the permission and assistance of Almighty God accomplish the same, although with the hazard of a thousand lives.

Which wordes M. Topliffe hearing, being much troubled therwith, scarce giving him leave to say a Pater noster, bad the Hangman turne the ladder, which in an instant being done, presently he caused him to be cut downe, the Blessed martyr in the sight of all the beholders, being yet able to stand on his feete, & casting his eyes towardes heaven, his senses were very little astonished, in so much that the Hangman was forced to trippe up his heeles from under him to make him fall on the blocke. And being dismembred, through very payne, in the hearing of many, with a lowde voyce he uttered these wordes, Oh it smartes, which M. Welles hearing, replyed thus: Alas sweete soule thy payne is great indeed, but almost past, pray for me now most holy Saynt, that mine may come. He being ripped up, & his bowelles cast into the fire, if credit may be given to hundreds of People standing by, and to the Hangman himselfe, the blessed Martyr uttered (his hart being in the executioners hand) these words, Sancte Gregori ora pro me, which the Hangman hearing, with open mouth swore this damnable oath, Gods woundes, See his hart is in my hand, and yet Gregory in his mouth, o egregious Papist! Thus the afflicted Martyr even to the last of his torments cryed for the ayde & succour of Saynts, and especially of S. Gregory his devoted patron, and our countries Apostle that by his intercession he might passe the sharpnes of that torment.

And thus with barbarons [sic] cruelty our thirce [sic] happy Martyr finished the course of his mortall life, and purchased no doubt a crowne of immortality in the glorious Court of heaven. Wherfore now he triumpheth with all unspeakeable ioy, and [b]eatitude amongst the number of those blessed martyrs who have in this world suffered all torments of persecution, and have withstood Princes and Potentates, lawes and lawmakers, for the honour and glory of theyr Lord and Saviour, and therfore have found true the confortable saying of holy David, Qui seminant in lachrymis, in exultatione metent: They who sow in teares, shall reape in ioy. Now so much the more is our Saynt glorifyed, by how much the more he was tormented, according to that saying of S. Cyprian: Quo longior vestra pugna hic, corona sublimior, presens tamen confessio quanto in passione fortior, tanto clarior & maior in honore. By how much your combat is the longer, by so much your crowne shall be the higher, so that by how much stronger the present confession is in suffering, so much more glorious and greater it shall be in honour.

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1586: John Lowe, John Adams, and Robert Dibdale, English Catholics

1 comment October 8th, 2017 Richard Stanton

(Thanks to Richard Stanton for his guest post, originally published in A menology of England and Wales, or, Brief memorials of the ancient British and English saints arranged according to the calendar, together with the martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. Writing in the 19th century, Stanton calls these English martyrs “Venerable” but as of this writing they are “Blessed” — having been advanced further along the path to sainthood in 1987. -ed.)

The Venerable John Lowe was born in London, and for some time was a Protestant minister. On his conversion he went to the College at Douay, and from thence to Rome, where he was ordained priest. In due time he returned to England and laboured on the Mission, till he was arrested and condemned and executed for high treason, on account of his priestly character and the exercise of its functions.

The Venerable John Adams was a native of Dorsetshire, and went to Rheims for his theological studies. He returned to England as a priest in 1581, and after some time was seized and banished, with a number of others, in the year 1585. After a few months’ stay at the College, he contrived to return to his labours on the Mission, but was once more apprehended and condemned to death, barely for being a priest. Few particulars are known relative to this Martyr, but it is recorded in one of the catalogues that his constancy was proof against all the artifices and promises, used to divert him from his generous resolution to sacrifice his life for the Faith.

The Venerable Richard, or, as he is called in some catalogues, Robert Dibdale, was born in Worcestershire. He became a student, and in due time a priest, of the English College at Rheims. In the year 1584 he was sent on the Mission, which he diligently served for some time. He was however arrested by the persecutors, tried and condemned for high treason, on account of his priestly character and functions. This Martyr, like a number of other missioners of that time, was remarkable for the gift he possessed of exorcising evil spirits. A fellow-missioner has left an account of several wonderful instances of this kind, of which he was himself witness, and others are recorded by Yepez, Bishop of Tarrasona, in his account of the English persecution. These wonderful occurrences were said to be the cause of numerous conversions to the faith.

The three Martyrs, Lowe, Adams, and Dibdale, all suffered at Tyburn on the same day, the 8th October, and on the mere charge of their priesthood, which by the recent statute was declared to be high treason.

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1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1242: William de Marisco, pirate knight

Add comment July 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1242, the knight, outlaw, and pirate William de Marisco was drawn by a horse to Coventry and put to the pains of disemboweling and quartering — albeit only after he had already been hanged to death.


Illustration of William de Marisco’s execution by the amazing 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris.

He’d eventually be damned as a kingslayer but Marisco’s doom began with the 1235 murder of a messenger of King Henry III named Henry Clement, slain at the very gates of Westminster “to our no small dishonour and scandal of the realm.” Suspicion settled on the Mariscos, who might have been motivated by Clement’s boasting of having helped recently lay in his grave the Earl of Pembroke, a magnate and great rival to the king.*

Marisco, whose architectural legacy for us is Coonagh Castle, County Limerick in Ireland, fled the scene of the crime and took refuge on Lundy Island, a gorgeous and remote fingerbone in the westerly Bristol Channel that had once been granted to the Knights Templar.**


Lundy’s west coast.
(cc) image by P_Dean.

There, as our chronicler-illustrator Matthew Paris describes, he made his way thereafter by piracy.

Whilst these occurrences were taking place, William Marsh [“de Marisco” means “of the Marshes” -ed.], son of Geoffrey Marsh, took up his quarters on an island near Bristol, called Lundy, a place impregnable by the nature of its situation, where he lived like a pirate with a number of proscribed and wicked men, indulging in plunder and rapine, and, attended by his companions, traversed the places on the neighbouring coast, despoiling the inhabitants of their property, especially wine and other provisions. By sudden incursions lie frequently carried off vast booty from the country lying near the island, and in many ways injured the kingdom of England both by land and sea, and caused great loss to the native and foreign merchants.

William de Marisco would manage seven years on the lam, seizing victuals and booty and ransomable hostages as he could from his island fastness. He’d been dispossessed of his lands in Ireland and nursed against King Henry the personal grudge of an aggrieved nobleman.

Such injuries were known to heal over time, and amid the tangle of authority and kinship among medieval Europe’s bluebloods, today’s rebel might become tomorrow’s hand of the king. But in 1238, William cut the roads behind him and made himself permanently anathema by allegedly sending an assassin after Henry III. Matthew Paris, again, with a story that will easily bear the interpretation that Marisco’s name was put into a deranged regicide’s mouth by his torturers:

on the day after the Nativity of St. Mary, a certain learned esquire, as it is said, came to the king’s court at Woodstock, pretending that he was insane, and said to the king, “Resign to me the kingdom, which you have unjustly usurped, and so long detained from me;” he also added, that he bore the sign of royalty on his shoulder. The king’s attendants wanted to beat him and drive him away from the royal presence, but the king prevented those who were rushing on him from violence, saying, “Let the insane man rave as becomes him, for such people’s words have not the influence of truth.” In the middle of the night, however, this same man entered the king’s bedchamber window, carrying an open knife, and approached the king’s couch, but was confused at not finding him there, and immediately began to look for him in the several chambers of his residence. The king was, by God’s providence, then sleeping with the queen. But one of the queen’s maids, named Margaret Biseth, was by chance awake, and was singing psalms by the light of a candle (for she was a holy maid, and one devoted to God), and when she saw this madman searching all the private places, to kill the king, and frequently asking in a terrible voice where the king was, she was greatly alarmed, and began to utter repeated cries. At her dreadful cry the king’s attendants awoke, and leaped from their beds with all speed, and running to the spot, broke open the door, which this robber had firmly secured with a bolt, and seized the robber, and, notwithstanding his resistance, bound him fast and secured him. He, after some time, confessed that he had been sent there to kill the king, after the manner of the assassins, by William Marsh, son of Greoffrey Marsh, and he stated that others had conspired to commit the same crime.

Paris has evident contempt for William, but he does note that “William boldly denied all these charges, yet he did not obtain any credit, nor was he listened to; he therefore, however unadvisedly, betook himself to out-of-the-way places, and became a fugitive and an outlaw.” It is not clear to this author that outlawry is “unadvisable” vis-a-vis standing to the judgment of a king who is certain you have attempted his life; nevertheless, it is usually little better than the temporary expedient for the doomed.

On the feast of St. James, by the king’s order, the said William, with sixteen of his accomplices taken with him, was tried and condemned, and, by the king’s order, was sentenced to an ignominious death. He was, therefore, first dragged from Westminster to the Tower of London, and from thence to that instrument of punishment called a gibbet† suspended on which he breathed forth his miserable life. After he had grown stiff in death, his body was let down and disembowelled; his entrails were immediately burnt on the spot, and his wretched body divided into four parts, which were sent to the four principal cities of the kingdom, that the sight of them might strike terror into all beholders.

His sixteen accomplices were all dragged through London at the horse’s tail, and hung on gibbets. The said William, after his condemnation, when about to imdergo the sentence pronounced upon him, invoking the divine judgment to witness, boldly declared that he was entirely free and guiltless of the crime of treason imputed to him, and likewise of the murder of the aforesaid clerk Clement; he also asserted that he had betaken himself to the aforesaid island for no other reason than to avoid the king’s anger, which he had always above all things wished to pacify by submitting to any kind of trial, or by any other humiliation; but that, after he had taken refuge as a fugitive in the said island, he was obliged to prolong his miserable life by seizing on provisions wherever he could find them. He then poured out his soul in confession before God, to J. de St. Giles, one of the brethren of the Preacher order, and confessed his sins with contrition, not excusing himself and giving vent to evil words, but rather accusing himself. This discreet preacher and confessor then administered gentle comfort to him, and dismissed him in peace, persuading him that he underwent the death to which he was doomed by way of repentance. And thus, as before mentioned, horrible to relate, he endured not one, but several dreadful deaths.

Readers of Latin can peruse the transcript of the trial, which has surprisingly survived the ravages of century, in this 1895 English Historical Review article.

* Pembroke’s brother and heir was also suspected initially, but was able to clear himself; however, he was later made to take a vow no longer to protect William de Marisco, suggesting that Pembroke was at least in simpatico with the hit. Both William and Geoffrey de Marisco had been fined previously for adhering to the Pembroke side in a fight with the king.

** The Templars at best barely possessed Lundy and the Mariscos who claimed it opposed those banker-knights’ stake, successfully.

† Paris’s unfamiliar marking of the term “gibbet” is interesting here; according to dictionary.com it was during the 13th century that this word for gallows entered Middle English from French.

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1684: Sir Thomas Armstrong, Whig plotter

Add comment June 20th, 2017 Headsman

Whig knight Sir Thomas Armstrong was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this date in 1684, for adhering to Lord Russell‘s treasonable Rye House Plot.

Armstrong had been tempting the executioner for some years: he fell foul of the Cromwell protectorate for shuttling funds to the exiled Charles II, and in 1675 he slew a Mr. Scroope at a theater brawl. Both times he kept his head.

He would not be so lucky when conniving to kidnap the king.

Armstrong was shut out of the leadership clique of the Rye House Plot but he was active scheming with Monmouth and others about “how to surprize the Kings Guards” to get at the royal person, with Armstrong observing that “the Guards were very remiss in their places, and not like Souldiers, and the thing was feasible if they had strength to do it.”*

Briefly escaped to the Low Countries along with a number of other fellow-travelers,** Armstrong was arrested in Leiden and repatriated to face royal justice.


Detail view (click for a larger image) of the dismembering of Thomas Armstrong. Condemned to drawing and quartering, Armstrong was hanged to death and only “after such time the Sufferer had hung about half an Hour, and the Executioner had divested him of his Aparrel, he was cut down according to his Sentence; his Privy Members dissected from his Body, and Burnt; his Head cut off, and shewed to the People as that of a Traytor; his Heart and Bowels taken out, and committed to the Flames; and his Body Quartered into four Parts, which, with his Head, was conveyed back to Newgate, to be disposed of according to his Majesties Pleasure, and Order.” (

In an era of bitter factional politics spiced by burgeoning print culture, Armstrong’s delayed handling gave Tory squibs ample space to gleefully taunt the Whigs through him, and savor in doggerel (via repeat reference to executioner Jack Ketch) the inevitable rending of flesh that ensued.

The Bully WHIG: OR, The Poor Whores Lamentation for the Apprehending OF Sir THOMAS ARMSTRONG.

To the Tune of, Ah! Cruel Bloody Fate! &c.

I.

AH! Cruel Bloody Tom!
What canst thou hope for more,
Than to receive the Doom
Of all thy Crimes before?
For all thy bold Conspiracies
Thy Head must pay the score;
Thy Cheats and Lies,
Thy Box and Dice,
Will serve thy turn no more.

II.

Ungrateful thankless Wretch!
How could’st thou hope in vain
(Without the reach of Ketch)
Thy Treasons to maintain?
For Murders long since done and past,
Thou Pardons hast had store,
And yet would’st still
Stab on, and kill,
As if thou hop’dst for more.

III.

Yet Tom, e’r he would starve,
More Blood resolv’d to’ve spilt;
Thy flight did only serve
To justifie thy Guilt:
While They whose harmless Innocence
Submit to Chains at home,
Are each day freed,
While Traytors bleed,
And suffer in their room.

IV.

When Whigs a PLOT did Vote,
What Peer Justice fled?
In the FANATICK PLOT
Tom durst not shew his head.
Now Sacred Justice rules above,
The Guiltless are set free,
And the Napper’s napt,
And Clapper clapt
In his CONSPIRACY.

V.

Like Cain, thou hast a Mark
Of Murder on thy Brow;
Remote, and in the dark,
Black Guilt did still pursue:
Nor England, Holland, France, or Spain,
The Traytor can defend;
He will be found
In Fetters bound,
To pay for’t in the end.

VI.

Tom might about the Town
Have bully’d, huff’d and roar’d,
By every Venus known,
Been for a Mars ador’d:
By friendly Pimping and false Dice
Thou might’st have longer liv’d,
Hector’d and shamm’d,
And swore and gam’d,
Hadst thou no Plots contriv’d.

VII.

Tom once was Cock-a-hoop
Of all the Huffs in Town;
But now his Pride must stoop,
His Courage is pull’d down:
So long his Spurs are grown, poor Tom
Can neither fly nor fight;
Ah Cruel Fate!
That at this rate
The ‘Squire shou’d foil the Knight!

VIII.

But now no remedy,
It being his just Reward;
In his own Trap, you see,
The Tygre is ensnar’d:
So may all Traytors fare, till all
Who for their Guilt did fly,
With Bully Tom
By timely Doom
Like him, unpity’d die.


Sr. Thomas Armstrongs Last Farewell to the WORLD: He being Condemned for HIGH-TREASON, and Conspiring the Death of the KING and the DUKE, and subverting the Government of these three Kingdoms A SONG.

To the Tune STATE and AMBITION [no embeddable sound file, alas, but for the arrangement see here and here]

A Due to the pleasure of murther and whoring,
Of plotting conspiring the death of a King:
Confound the temptation of Bastard Adoring,
For which I confess I deserve for to Swing.
Poor Monmouth may Curse me, ’twas I over Ruled
In all his Intreagues by Tony’s black spell,
His timerous contrivance I constantly Schooled;
And told him how safe it was then to rebell.
I shew’d him the glimps of a Crown and a Scepter,
The strength of the Crow’d, and applause of the Town
Till glory did dazle his Soul in a Rapture;
That all things inferior appear’d but a Crown:
Then I was in hopes to be second Assistant;
Therefore to unKing him our party would bring:
But now as the Devil wou’d have it I mist on’t,
For which I before the damn’d Doctor must swing.
The Doctor confused three parts of the Nation;
He murthered thirty; I murthered but two,
With long sword and Codpiss I made it the fashion
Rogues Whores to advance, and the Kingdom subdue:
Brave Monmouth I shew’d him all ways of debauching,
And ne’r let him want procurer nor Whore;
Some Aldermens Wives they were proud to approach him,
I often as Grey have stood Pimp at the door.
Nay, many were sure, that their souls would be sainted
Had they but one hour his sweet grace to enjoy
How oft in my Arms they have sighed and panted,
Untill I conveyed ‘em to their Princely Boy
But now all those pleasures are faded with glory,
His Grace in Disgrace and Tom is Condemn’d;
Jack Ketch now looks sharp for to shorten my story,
And leaves me no time to murder or mend.
Yet I must confess, I was oft Monmouths taster,
For fear, least some fire-ship might blow up her Prince,
Which caused our party to flock in much faster,
All Officers from the Plot Office advance.
Old Tony took Care too, that nothing was wanting,
In Wapping, the Square, and Algers-gate-street,
I brought in Bess Mackrel, to help out the taping,
And Tony swore damn him, theres nothing so sweet.
Sweet Betty farewell, ’twas for thee I abjured,
My Lady and Children, this fourteen long years;
They always were kind, but I still was obdured,
Seeking the Destruction of King, Church, & Peers
Had I Grey and Mellvin now here to condole with
And their Recommendations to’th’ Cabals below –,
I might have Commissions in Hell to controle with
But sure I shall find some Friends where I go.


The WHIGS laid open, OR, An Honest Ballad of these sad Times.

To a Mery Tune, called Old Symon the King.

Now the Plotters & Plots are confounded,
And all their Designs are made known
Which smellt so strong of the Round-head,
And Treason of Forty One.
And all the Pious Intentions
For Property, Liberty, Laws,
Are found to be only Inventions,
To bring in their Good Old Cause.
And all the Pious, &c.

II.

By their delicate Bill of Exclusion,
So hotly pursu’d by the Rabble;
They hop’d to have made such Confusion,
As never was seen at Old Babel.
The Shaftsbury’s brave City Boys,
And M—ths Countrey Relations,
Were ready to second the Noise,
And send it throughout the 3 Nations.
Then Shaftsbury’s, &c.

III.

No more of the 5th of November,
That Dangerous Desperate Plot;
But ever with horruor remember
Old Tony, Armstrong, and Scot.
For Tony shou’d ne’re be forgotten,
Nor Ferguson’s Popular Rules;
Nor M—th, or G—y, when they’re rotten,
For Popular, Politick Fools.
For Tony shou’d, &c.

IV.

The Murder of Father and King,
And Extinguishing all the right Line,
Was a Good and a Godly thing;
And worthy the Whigs Design:
The Hanging of Prelate, and Peer,
And putting the Guards to the Sword,
And Fleying, and Slashing Lord Mayors,
Was to do the Work o’the Lord.
The Hanging of, &c.

V.

But I hope they will have their Desert,
And the Gallows will have its due,
And Jack Ketch will be more Expert,
And in time be as Rich as a Jew,
Whilst now in the Tavern we Sing,
All Joy to great York and his Right,
A Glorious long Reign to our King;
But when They’ve occasion we’ll Fight.
Whilst now in the Tavern, &c.

VI.

The name of a Whig and a Tory,
No more shall Disquiet the Nation;
We’ll Fight for the Church and her Glory,
And Pray for this Reformation.
That ev’ry Factious Professor,
And ev’ry Zealous Pretender
May humble ‘em, to the Successor
Of Charles, our Nations Defender.
That every Faction &c.


An Elegie On the never to be forgotten Sir Thomas Armstrong Knight; Executed for Conspiring the Death of His most Sacred Majesty, and Royal Brother, June 20. 1684. With some Satyrical Reflections on the whole Faction.

Stand forth ye damn’d deluding Priests of Baal,
And found from out each Trumpet Mouth a Call
Let it be loud and shrill, that ev’ry Man
May hear the noise, from Beersheba to Dan;
To summon all the Faction, that they may
In doleful Hums and Haws, bewail this day,
And to their Just Confusion howl and roar,
For the great Bully of their Cause, is now no more.

But now methinks I hear the Faction cry,
Ohone! Where’s all thy Pomp and Gallantry?
Thy Great Commands, thy Interest and thy State?
The many Crouds which did upon thee wait?

When thou like Atlas on thy shoulders bore,
That mighty World which we so much adore
(That Pageant Heroe, Off-spring of a Whore.)

Behold ye stubborn Crew, the certain Fate
That waits upon the hardened Reprobate.
See; the effects of Treason’s Terrible,
In this life Infamy, and i’th’ next a Hell,
While Heav’n attends on Kings with special Care,
The Traitor to himself becomes a snare:
Drove out like Cain, to wander through the World,
By his own thoughts into Distraction hurl’d,
Despis’d by all, perplext with hourly fear,
And by his Friends push’t like the hunted Deer,
Like a mad Dog, still houted as he ran,
A just Reward for th’ base Rebellious man.

How often has kind Heaven preserv’d the Crown,
And tumbled the Audacious Rebel down?
How many Warnings have they had of late?
How often read their own impending Fate?
That still they dare their wicked Acts pursue,
And know what Heaven has ordain’d their due?
That man who cou’d not reas’nably desire
To raise his Fortunes, and his Glories higher,
Who did enjoy, unto a wish, such store,
That all his Ancestors scarce heard of more,
Shou’d by his own procuring fall so low,
As if he’d study’d his own overthrow,
Looks like a story yet without a Name,
And may be stil’d the first Novel in Fame?
So the fam’d Angels, Turbulent as Great,
Who always waited ’bout the Mercy-Seat,
Desiring to be something yet unknown,
Blunder’d at all, and would have graspt the Crown,
Till Heaven’s Great Monarch, saw they wou’d Rebel,
Then dasht their Hopes, and damn’d them down to Hell.

And now methinks I see to th’fatal place
A Troop of Whiggs with Faction in each Face,
And Red-swoln Eyes, moving with mournful pace,

Pitying the Mighty Sampson of their Cause,
Curse their Fates, and Railing at the Laws.
The Sisters too appear, with sniveling Cryes
To celebrate their Stallions Obsequies;
From th’ Play-house and from Change, how they resort,
From Country, City, nay, there’s some from Court,
From the Old C—ss wither’d and decay’d,
To a Whigg Brewers Youthful Lovely Maid.
Gods! What a Troop is here? sure Hercules
Had found enough so many Whores to please.

Repent, ye Factious Rout, Repent and be
Forewarn’d by this bold Traytors Destiny.
Go home ye Factious Dogs, and mend your Lives;
Be Loyal, and make honest all your Wives.
You keep from Conventicles first, and then
Keep all your Wives from Conventicling Men.
Leave off your Railing ‘gainst the King and State,
Your foolish Prating, and more foolish Hate.
Obey the Laws, and bravely act your parts,
And to the Church unite in Tongues and Hearts;
Be sudden too, before it proves too late,
Lest you partake of this bold Traytors Fate.

And if the Faction thinks it worth the Cost,
(To keep this Bully’s Name from being lost)
To raise a Pillar, to perpetuate
His Wond’rous Actions, and Ignoble Fate,
Let’em about it streight, and when ’tis done,
I’le Crown the Work with this Inscription.

Bold Fame thou Ly’st! Read here all you
That wou’d this Mighty Mortal know;
First, he was one of low degree,
But rose to an Hyperbole.
Famous t’ excess in ev’ry thing,
But duty to his God, and King;
In Oaths as Great as any He,
That ever Grac’d the Tripple Tree;
So Absolute, when Drencht in Wine,
He might have been the God o’th’ Vine.
His Brutal Lust was still so strong,
He never spar’d, or old, or young;
In Cards and Dice he was well known,
T’ out-cheat the Cheaters of the Town.

These were his Virtues, if you’d know
His Vices too pray read below.

Not wholly Whig, nor Atheist neither,
But something form’d of both together,
Famous in horrid Blasphemies,
Practic’d in base Adulteries.
In Murders vers’d as black, and foul
As his Degenerated Soul.
In’s Maxims too, as great a Beast,
As those his honest Father drest. [his father was a groom -ed.]
The Factions Bully, Sisters Stallion:
Now Hang’d, and Damn’d, for his Rebellion.

* Per “An impartial and full account of the life & death of the late unhappy William Lord Russel eldest son and heir of the present Earl of Bedford, who was executed for high treason July 21, 1683, in Lincolns-Inn-Fields: together with the original and rise of the earls of Bedford, giving a brief account of each of them.” (1684)

** Notably joining Armstrong in continental refuge — and narrowly escaping recapture with him — were fellow plotters Lord Thomas Grey and Robert Ferguson. Both these worthies returned in power with the rest of the Whig party come the Glorious Revolution … an event for which Ferguson, a prolific pamphleteer, wrote the definitive justification.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Terrorists,Treason

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1437: Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl

Add comment March 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.

When Atholl’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.

By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.

But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.

Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart by name, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.

Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.

In a 1992 article on events† historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.

Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?

If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.

And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.

Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.

The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.

After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.

But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.

‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.

-Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582)

* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.

** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.

† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).

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